1701 words on

 The Western and Isis

 by Patrick J. Webster


To continue: it is significant that even in songs which would purport to describe happily ensconced marital relationships, even in songs that have generally been perceived as extolling the pleasures of existence within a settled monogamous life with a wife and children, even here there is still a sense of scepticism and doubt. For example, in ‘Sign on the Window’ (1970), Dylan ended the song with a vision of supposed domestic bliss:

Build me a cabin in Utah,
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout,
Have a bunch of kids who call me ‘Pa’,
That must be what it’s all about
That must be what it’s all about.

There is a sense here of a male voice striving to convince itself of the concept it proposes. Whilst the idea of making sense of the world by placing it within an arena of home, wife and children is one obvious means of defining oneself as a  man,  there is nonetheless an element of self-imposed coercion being utilised. We are told that this ‘must be what it’s all about’  and the fact that Dylan feels the need to state this twice suggests he perhaps protests too much. As Michael Gray suggested, the closure of the song is ‘made less positive by its being repeated, as if for self-reassurance’. 

There are a wide range of theories to account for the masculine fear of engulfment in the female, and the subsequent loss of the self. For example, Julia Kristeva has explored the masculine fear of the abject nature of the female, and Nancy Chodorow’s work has identified how women’s universal responsibility for mothering creates asymmetrical factors between the genders.  However, it seems to me, in relation to the songs of Bob Dylan, that his texts offer s simple yet powerful means of evading a  sense of confronting the problematical discursive manoeuvres in constructing a gendered identity. The concept of movement and the freedom to travel becomes a means of evading this engulfment within the feminine; and to keep moving, to refrain from stopping, at least offers one way out of this dichotomy. 

There are, it must be admitted, isolated examples of songs in which Dylan places a male protagonist out in the wilderness in the company of a woman. For example, in ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1968): 

Twas down in Chaynee County
A time they talk about,
With his lady by his side
He took a stand ...  

One might also think of the singer and his companion, Magdalena, who travel together in ‘Romance in Durango’ (1976) and also the sister who is on the highway with the steel driving crew in ‘Tough Mama’ (1974). The one other exception that would seem to exist in Dylan’s canon is ‘Gypsy Lou’ (1963), a song in which the gender roles were completely reversed, a song about ‘a ramblin’ woman with a ramblin’ mind, who leaves a large number of masculine lovers behind her. However, these are the exceptions that prove the rule, the wilderness in Dylan’s work is predominantly defined as the place where males, usually heroic males, go to escape the domain of women. 

In his book America in the Movies, Michael Wood speculated on the motives behind the male heroes of Hollywood westerns in the 1940s and 1950s. This speculation may possibly illuminate the question why so many male protagonists in Dylan’s work have an attraction for the road and such an equivocal attitude towards women: 

[T]he hero secretly fears women - women and the civilisation, compromise and settled life they represent; he sees them as sources of corruption and betrayal, luring him away from independence and a sure sense of himself, as well as from the more comforting company of men. 

Wood goes on to argue that ‘women [are] a form of entanglement, a dark snare almost always eclipsed by the glamour and loneliness of wandering.’ 

It would seem to me that such fears and desires also operate in Dylan’s work, and further illuminate the argument that gender is a deliberately constructed discourse within the songs. One of the songs that most reflects these fears and desires, is ‘Isis’, from the 1976 release, Desire. This was a song that explored ideas of freedom and escape, a song that mixed the surreal and the allegorical, the mythic and the real, in a sophisticated melange of gender politics – and a song I want to consider in some detail. 

As far as I can ascertain, the song has not commonly been seen as coming from the Western genre. However, taking Michael Wood’s argument above, I would suggest one can read this as a song dealing with ideas very much redolent of the Western, albeit a Western genre Dylan and Jacques Levy revisit with what might be called a post-modern sense of parody and irony. And furthermore, if the song is read within a Western genre, then the implications for the construction of masculinity within it achieve a still greater level of interest. 

Whilst the Western has seldom been seen as an important or typical theme within Dylan’s work - it does, I would argue, deserve a certain degree of attention. One might initially consider the first words Dylan givers the world, or at least the first words found in Lyrics. The opening lines to ‘Talkin’ New York’ (1961), the first song in the collection, finds the narrator of the song: 

Ramblin’ out of the wild west
Leavin’ the towns I loved the best
Thought I’d seen some ups and downs
’Till I came into New York Town.

Thus Dylan, in a certain sense, appears to the world coming out of the wild west; in a geographical, historical and cultural sense he appears to the world as if he was emerging from this genre. In addition to this Dylan has written a significant range of songs set in total or in part within the Western genre, for example: ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1968), ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (1975), ‘Romance in Durango’ (1976), ‘New Danville Girl’ (1985),  the collection of songs from Dylan’s soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah’s film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,  and a number of others. 

The Western as a genre might be dismissed by some as a lightweight and escapist form of popular culture. However, as Jane Tompkins argues in her book, West Of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, there is nothing lightweight or escapist about the needs the Western answers, ‘the desires they arouse of the vision of life they portray.’ Tompkins argues that the Western provides an environment in which men can find a reality that might otherwise be lacking in their lives, that the Western functions as: 

‘... a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunities for conquest. It seems to offer escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society: from a mechanised existence, economic dead-ends, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice’ 

What is at stake is the sense of challenge, a method of getting away from the triviality of life into something that at least seems to be real. The hunger that Westerns satisfy is a hunger not so much for adventure but for meaning. In a general sense the Western is a genre in which something really is at stake. Thus the genre is not an escape from reality but an attempt to get as close as possible to something that is real. As Tompkins puts it, ‘In the Western nothing stands between the man and the world,’  and of course, the use of the word ‘man’ in this quotation is relevant, insomuch as the Western was and is almost universally about men. This is a point to bear in mind when discussing the Western in relation to Dylan’s work. 

It would seem to me, bearing the above in mind, that the Western provides an effective and cogent metaphor for the representation of masculinity within the song I now want to discuss, ‘Isis’. One might therefore suggest that one can see here at least a partial explanation for the way the men in Dylan’s work generate gender performativity within a masculinity finding challenge and meaning within such a specific genre.           

To be continued: next month I hope to at last get on to the song, ‘Isis,’ itself.